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At this point, saying that your small business needs to embrace technology to drive growth is on par with saying you need to make money – it's true, but everyone already knew that. But as the pace of technology quickens, it can be harder to know which development to pay attention to. One development that seems here to stay and is making real impact for businesses is artificial intelligence, or AI.

Though it was once a far-out notion, AI has become fairly commonplace in the market, with products like Siri on our phones, Google Home in our spaces, and smart programs on websites to answer questions in real-time. In fact, these tools are so widespread, and so seamlessly integrated with our experience of technology, that a new study showed 2 out of 3 consumers don’t even realize when they’re using AI.1

From a business perspective, the application of AI holds a lot of potential power, and industry leaders are taking notice. A recent study found that 72% of executives consider AI to be a significant “business advantage,”2 and its widespread implementation throughout business software is bringing AI to more and more businesses each day, small and large. Here are 4 ways artificial intelligence could give your small business a boost in 2018.

  1. Customer Service

    By introducing artificial intelligence, businesses can radically streamline tasks like auditing, risk assessment, and analytics calculations. 

    The ultimate goal of customer service is to engage comprehensively and quickly with your customer base to satisfy their concerns. AI can help you improve and streamline that experience, as many experts have already found. Oracle research shows that 80% of sales and marketing leaders currently use or plan to use chatbots on their websites in the near the future.3 A chatbot uses natural language processing technology to match key terms from customer inquiries with available information.4 LivePerson, an AI developer,5 has found that while consumers may feel frustrated dealing with a pure bot, specialized bots built to perform simple tasks like requesting account information can assist a customer service representative and streamline efficiency.6 Customers may even respond positively: In Oracle’s survey, 57% of online shoppers and researchers were interested in getting real-time answers from bots on a company website.7 These bots, which typically take the form of chat windows, could provide anything from customer service to troubleshooting depending on your industry, so research the best option for your unique customer needs.
  2. Accounting Tracking banking records and expenditures is a vital aspect of business, with 53% of businesses stating that cash flow is their highest priority.8 However, the documentation and due diligence required can be extremely time consuming. Many of the tasks are repetitive, redundant, and increase both labor costs and customer wait times; a recent study showed that the small business receivables cycle has grown 30% over the last five years, to 48 days.9

    The culprit, it turns out, may be a lack of efficiency in established accounting processes. By introducing artificial intelligence and machine learning into the accounting mix, businesses could radically streamline tasks like auditing of expense submissions, risk assessment, and analytic calculations. In fact, products for such integration are already being developed.10 Consider using something like Pegg, a chat bot extension that acts as an easy-to-use interface for accounting-related questions. For instance, you could simply ask “Who owes me money?” and Pegg will auto-reply with any outstanding debts owed to you.11 There’s also Xero, which uses machine learning to create an automation tool that learns over time how to categorize invoices, rather than having an accountant perform the task manually.12 This same machine learning technology is also at play in QuickBooks, helping automate tasks like invoice categorization and mileage tracking.13

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  3. Analytics Though it’s a practice traditionally employed by statisticians and mathematicians, predictive analytics is becoming more widespread in enterprise than ever before. Analytics especially shows returns for the retail sector. Predictive analytics helped Staples analyze online and offline customer behaviors. This in turn helped them understand which products to stock, what promotional events were working, and how shopping varied by location, leading to a 137% ROI for the company.14

    In a poll conducted by Narrative Science, 58% of executives confirmed they are using predictive analytics to support business goals, and the tools these executives are using are increasingly becoming accessible to small businesses. This technology can be used to support a wide range of initiatives, such as strategizing marketing campaigns, setting competitive prices, and detecting fraud.15 Consider exploring cutting edge new AIs like Albert, a program that not only tests and executes your social media marketing across channels, but also uses real-time analysis to make sure you’re spending the optimal amount on ads and keywords. Analytics can also be turned inward with a tool like Deep Relevance that uses behavior and relationship analytics to identify risks like employee fraud, especially for businesses in high-security industries.

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  4. Cybersecurity Speaking of risk, with the rapid rise in online data storage by businesses both big and small,16 it should be no surprise that the hackers are coming. One particular style of attack has grown head and shoulders above the rest: ransomware. Security firm Kaspersky found these attacks grew 250% over the first quarter of 2017, from 61,832 to 218,625.17 Ransomware hacks begin after a user falls victim to a phishing email, or otherwise downloads malicious malware. These programs hack relevant data, locks users out of accessing it, and demand a fee to give it back.18

    For small businesses without a lot of capital to spend either on cybersecurity or a sudden ransom, these attacks can be devastating, and recent reports suggest that 60% of small companies that suffer a cyberattack are out of business within six months.19 Luckily, artificial intelligence is taking on ransomware by introducing machine learning into antivirus protection. Most forms of antivirus software rely on user-maintained malware databases that are not updated regularly. However, cyber-safety stars of tomorrow like CrowdStrike and Sentinel One move away from databases entirely.20 Instead, they focus on artificial intelligence that analyzes any new piece of software it encounters and calculates the probability that it’s malware. If the software scores above a certain threshold, it’s flagged and rejected.21

Artificial intelligence wasn’t imagined to have practical business applications back when early science fiction writers described master computers with bad intentions. But today many businesses are finding that artificial intelligence isn’t something to hold suspect, but is instead a useful tool to improve efficiency, ensure compliance with regulations, and increase employee engagement as basic tasks are automated. Whether you choose an AI to keep a careful database of accounts, protect your company from hackers, or stay in tune with your customers, this is one tech that can vitalize and empower your small business.

1 https://research.hubspot.com/reports/artificial-intelligence-is-here

2 http://www.pwc.com/CISAI?WT.mc_id=CT1-PL52-DM2-TR1-LS4-ND6-BPA1-CN_CIS-AI-AIsocial

3 https://www.oracle.com/webfolder/s/delivery_production/docs/FY16h1/doc35/CXResearchVirtualExperiences.pdf

4 https://research.hubspot.com/reports/artificial-intelligence-is-here#LINK3

5 http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/liveperson-announces-fourth-quarter-2016-financial-results-300404563.html

6 https://www.liveperson.com

7 https://research.hubspot.com/reports/artificial-intelligence-is-here#LINK3

8 https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/283784

9 https://paysimple.com/blog/better-invoicing-can-get-paid-faster-2

10 https://hellopegg.io

11 https://hellopegg.io

12 https://www.xero.com/us

13 https://quickbooks.intuit.com/blog/innovation/machine-learning-unlocking-the-power-of-millions-for-the-prosperity-of-one

14 https://www.sas.com/en_us/insights/analytics/predictive-analytics.html

15 https://www.sas.com/en_us/insights/analytics/predictive-analytics.html

16 http://www.computerweekly.com/feature/Meeting-the-demand-for-data-storage

17 http://www.newsweek.com/ransomware-attacks-rise-250-2017-us-wannacry-614034

18 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/0/protect-ransomware

19 http://www.denverpost.com/2016/10/23/small-companies-cyber-attack-out-of-business

20 https://www.crowdstrike.com

21  https://www.crowdstrike.com